Skagit River Journal
(1900 S-W Fire)
July 1911 photo of 700 block of Metcalf street after the downtown Sedro-Woolley fire. The view is to the southwest. At the top is the location of the present U.S. Post Office. That location was then the site of the original Sedro-Woolley city hall.
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(bullet) Site founded Sept. 1, 2000. Passed 6 million page views, November 2012; passed 800 stories in 2012 — Mailing: (bullet) Noel V. Bourasaw, editor (bullet) 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284 where Mortimer Cook started a town & named it Bug
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The editor dreams of what might have happened
when Mortimer Cook arrived at future Sedro in June 1884
Chapter One of Humbug!, a book in progress

(First house in Sedro)
      Years ago, the late Howard Miller showed me this copy below of what was one of the earliest photos of the future-Sedro area. It was taken by Arthur Churchill Warner in 1894 and he wrote on the photo: "First house built in Sedro, Skaget Co., Wash." By good fortune, the University of Washington Special Collections has the original (number WAR0593). Unfortunately we have not been discovered where the cabin was or who it belonged to. It could have belonged to any of the four British bachelors who homesteaded the future acreage or Sedro — Batey, Dunlop, Hart and Woods. Or it could have been David Batey's first cabin that he built near the Skagit River before he built his 2-story house a mile north on the bench. Or it could have been the cabin built by Lafayette Stevens at future Sterling, circa mid-1870s, or it could have been the one that Jesse Beriah Ball built near his mill at Sterling. Just like with the derivation of the name, Sterling, we may never know.
      We researched Warner and discovered that he had a photo studio, Warner & Randolph, at Room 71, the Hinckley Building, at the corner of 2nd and Columbia streets, Seattle. Like many others, he came out to Washington Territory with the Northern Pacific Railroad, in 1886. Two years later, 1888, naturalist John Muir hired Warner to join and photograph a Mt. Rainier climbing expedition party. See more background on the photo and the photographer at our Story #1 on the site, From Bug to the Bughouse. We continue researching to find where the house was located but so far we suspect that it was built before Cook arrived at his river location.

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal ©2013

This page is under construction as photos are added

1. Arrival
(Mortimer 1875)
Mortimer Cook, 1875

      June is a dangerous time to visit the Skagit Valley in Washington state. Dangerous because the table that the meandering river sets for you is so compelling. The misty Puget Sound rain that discourages many travelers in other months only occasionally falls in June and the foggy days seem to open an artist's palate of greenery and flowers and trees that cast a bit of a spell on the unprepared. The artist Julian E. Itter enticed many to come see for themselves when he captured nature's dance from the North Cascades mountains in oils on canvas after the turn of the 20th century. Itter made his big splash with a 20x200 mural in the Washington State exhibit at the 1904 St. Louis-Louisiana Purchase Exposition.
      In June 1884, Mortimer Cook hopped out of an Indian's handmade cedar canoe on one of those sunny days and stood knee-deep in Skagit river water as he helped his hired Indian guides secure the canoe. They glided the craft up onto a small mound of silt that was nearly surrounded by somewhat odoriferous plants. Settlers called them "skunk cabbage," a natural vegetation hereabouts in the shaded swampy lowlands. "Just wait until a sunny day in March for the full aroma," they chuckled. The Indian guides showed him how they wrapped their salmon in the leaves. After they secured the canoe on the gentle slope of the sand bank, Mortimer stood on the sand, looking north. His Indian guides occupied themselves setting up a camp for a lunch before the planned trek, while Mortimer surveyed the forest around him and began summing up.

I have spent the past six years walking where Mortimer Cook walked and lived, as I decided to profile Cook instead of writing a more traditional history of my home town. If you want to help us as we polish this chapter, we welcome your email with any suggestions, corrections and criticism. The main question is: does dramatization in this chapter detract from the narrative or strengthen it? We suggest that you begin with the draft introduction to the Humbug! book. — Noel

      The year was 1884 but the towering forest north of the river was timeless. He had left Santa Barbara, California, with a decent nest egg — part from the sale of his remaining property there and part of it borrowed, to invest in this forest land, and the lenders wanted him to show a profit in a reasonable timeframe. They knew of his Santa Barbara bank's near-failure a decade before, so they increased the interest fee.
      The only annoyance on this day was the wave of mosquitoes that rose from the swampy land directly in front of him. By observing the Indians, however, he soon saw that they had an antidote, a special mud from the river shore that they chose carefully. He asked if they would share and they were happy to do so. It worked, or at least lessened the onslaught.
      As he leaned back and looked way up overhead, he wondered if this forest of cedar, hemlock, cottonwood and fir that spread like an impregnable wall close to the shore was the answer to his decade on a financial roller coaster. His ears slowly attuned to the sounds of the forest. An eagle swooped down to spear a salmon just yards away from where they stood, in a slough, or alternate channel, of the river that angled northwest from the main river. Rodents scurried through the brambles that wound up most of the cedars that jutted over the riverbank.
      He had arrived in the newly formed Skagit county just three days earlier. After taking a steamship north from Santa Barbara, California, to San Francisco in late May, he booked another steamer farther on north to Victoria on Vancouver island, the capital of British Columbia (hereafter BC), Canada's westernmost province. Then he boarded a sternwheeler steamship "up Sound," the term that pioneers used for continuing south to Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia. The last time he had traveled to the northwestern corner of the expanding United States, in 1858, Seattle was barely a small village, with a few stores and log cabins clustered along the eastern shore of Elliott Bay. It was now a growing town and showed great promise as a principal city, as the settlers prepared for a railroad to make it a market and import/export center.
      Land experts he consulted with there in early June agreed with the advice of Captain John Warner, his old friend from the days when they lived and worked together along the Fraser and Thompson rivers during the gold rushes of the late '50s and '60s. Warner noted that the Skagit river valley had resources galore and was a natural spot for future railroads. Warner advised that the Skagit river valley had resources galore but the western part of the county had been rapidly homesteaded and staked off by farmers. If Cook wanted land where he could found a town, Warner suggested, he should proceed upriver and consult with David Batey, an 1878 pioneer of that region.
      He boarded another sternwheeler north to LaConner, a busy little port and village on the eastern edge of Puget Sound and near the extensive San Juan archipelago of hundreds of islands. When the Washington Territorial legislature carved Skagit county out of the larger Whatcom county the previous fall, LaConner became the logical new county seat, but Mount Vernon, a village on the bend of the Skagit river about 15 miles east, was vying for it. Since the early summer that year had been quite dry overall, horsemen noted that he could reach Mount Vernon on horseback. Mortimer always relished riding so he rented a sorrel and proceeded over the LaConner flats, where pioneer farmers were already producing record crops after diking and reclaiming their land from the saltwater intrusion of the Swinomish channel.
      At Mount Vernon he had a very productive meeting with the town founders: Harrison Clothier, a former teacher from Wisconsin; and Ed Everett, a former Wisconsin student of Clothier's. They met up with each other again while working on the LaConner and formed a partnership to found the town, which was clustered around their general store. They had a crude hotel in the attic above the store and Cook stayed there that night. They also highly recommended David Batey, who lived about ten miles upriver. One of their business associates, Otto Klement, who had arrived in the valley in 1873 as a 21-year-old and also hailed from Wisconsin, walked him down to a crude hut where two brawny Indians lived. They had a cedar canoe that they hired out to take miners and settlers upriver to the foothills of the Cascades. He left the horse at an impromptu livery stable adjacent to the store.
      He could have waited for the sternwheeler Glide to proceed upriver later in the week, but he always preferred to travel on rivers in a canoe. At that leisurely pace he could observe everything along the banks, including the flora and fauna, including the masses of birds that seemed to number in the thousands in places. He admired the strength of the Indians, as they paddled in the bow and stern of the 15-foot canoe against the current. They later showed him how they had cut a cedar log in half, lit a fire along the length, then scraped out the resulting ashes with handmade adzes to form space for the rowers, a few passengers and baggage or goods bound for upriver.

(Sterling 1882)
This drawing of a building in the village of Sterling was by Alfred Downing, a cartographer who accompanied the U.S. Army expedition down the Skagit river from Cascade Pass, which was led by 1stLt Henry H. Pierce in 1882. See our Journal feature about the Pierce journey in Issue 60, which includes several of Downing's drawings. This one apparently illustrates the trading post building and a couple of cabins, in amongst "109 stumps," as Downing described the scene

      When Cook finally rose from the sand, he strode with purpose up the slope from the river into the canopy of trees. It was early-afternoon and locals in Mount Vernon warned to stay out of the dense woods after dark. They recalled that a settler named Carlton Stevens had nearly gone mad recently when he got lost in the swamps east of Sterling. His companions found him a few days later, sitting on an old cedar deadfall and muttering to himself. Mortimer counted paces well into the stand of trees and stopped at a hundred. He decided it was time to hike up to the farm of David Batey, and ask the original 1878 settler of this neck of the river if he had time for a couple of carpentry projects. If so, would he build a house for Cook's family where Cook now stood? Down slope he envisioned his first priority: a general store at the fork where the slough named for Batey angled off from the river. The store would front onto a pier for sternwheeler steamers. He would also ask Batey about the idea of a shingle mill near the store.
      Twenty years before, Mortimer founded a town, Cook's Ferry, on the Thompson River in BC. On this day, once again he asked himself: Why had he not taken the time back in 1858 to portage around the log jams and explore the Skagit valley back when he was running pack trains with Henry Roeder out of the village of Whatcom during the abbreviated Fraser river gold rush?
      What would he name his town here on the Skagit? Over the next few months, as they cleared the timber for a clearing, drained part of the swamp and swatted at the insects buzzing everywhere, he was inclined more and more to call it Bug, in honor of these damned mosquitoes whose stings were even more severe than those of their brethren down in California. Or maybe he recalled the adjective applied to California gold rush country:
      "It was humbug."
      Humbug was one of those colorful words employed on the Western frontier by different people to mean different things. For instance, it could mean sham or artifice or hyperbole — any talk of railroads often inspired such a retort. Charles Dickens popularized humbug in his A Christmas Carol in 1843, citing Scrooge's disgust with Christmas. In the gold diggings, the word often meant "all that glisters is not gold."

2. Meeting David Batey
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      After the Indians shared a late lunch of dried, smoked salmon and berries, Cook followed his guides as they led him along a trail traveled by their ancestors "since time began," they told him. He had learned many key words of the Chinook Jargon trading language Indians used to communicate with the settlers and as they walked over the soggy path, he asked what they mostly ate. They smiled and told him of the months when their Skagit salmon filled the shallower parts of the river "so deep you can walk over them." They speared the fish and dried them on large wooden racks. They built longhouses nearby where they had beached the canoe earlier, along with sweat houses where they celebrated their bounty and purified themselves in rituals. Over eons they followed the trails like this one to trading centers in and over the hills that formed a bowl around the narrow river valley.
      Earlier, when they neared the destination in the canoe, the Indians showed him Batey's home, high on a ridge about a mile north of the river. As they led him northwest on a diagonal along the slough bed, he noticed a high gravelly bench on their right that ranged in height from about 20 to 50 feet. That hinted at a possible earlier channel of the river that may have flowed deeper and wider across the valley. A danger flag popped up in his mind: if I build my store down at the river, could it flood not only the town site but even over that bench? So he asked them their opinion. No, they answered, through signs and jargon, the river had not flooded over the bench itself in their young lives. One recalled oral tales, however, about the floods that occurred once every three lifetimes when the river swelled up to reach just a couple feet beneath the bench, which meant that his store would be under at least 15 feet of water. That mixed signal did not deter him immediately, but a couple of those "century-floods" did visit a decade later in an expensive way, as well as in a humorous way for Mortimer, as we will see. Because of those back-to-back century floods in the '90s, the towns of Bug and old Sedro on Mortimer's original town site would have a lifespan of just a decade.
      The trail they followed this day seemed to dissect what appeared to be a large swampland. He recalled seeing similar landforms about 40 miles farther north along the Nooksack River, back in 1858 when he had crossed or skirted them with mules and horses. He had not ventured down to the Skagit then, partly because he was so occupied with packing supplies to the argonauts and partly because log jams a dozen miles downstream choked off travel on the Skagit. More's the pity, he reflected this day, admiring the clear blue sky without a cloud anywhere in sight.
      The party noticed a large log cabin fairly close to the river shore but then walked for at least two miles without seeing another sign of civilization. High alongside the ridge on the bench they could see puffs of smoke from behind a wall of berries that were purple or red and bulging with juice. The Indians told him that the berries were another of their food staples and trading goods — salmon berries were one of their favorite, they emphasized as they rubbed their stomachs.
      One of Batey's sons greeted them and showed them an almost hidden path up the bunch through the clusters of berry vines. At that point the Indians departed back to the river but not before they extended their palms, anticipating another "sitkum buck," their charge for the completed passage. Sitkum (also sometimes spelled sitcum) was a term that was born from the Chinook Jargon trading language. Indians, ship captains and traders cobbled Chinook together a century before on Vancouver Island. The boy was actually Batey's stepson and he was happy to hear of the outside world from another Caucasian visitor.
      After his introduction to Batey, Cook discovered that his host was an immigrant from England, as were the three other bachelors who joined with him at this point on the Skagit in 1878. from across the Atlantic who had tramped across this continent in the flow of manifest destiny to the Pacific Ocean. Like Cook himself, descendant of 17th century immigrants, great numbers of people were moving West in this decade, especially those seeking a new land where they were not restricted by their class or trapped in old social hierarchies and pecking orders.
      As they chatted on wooden benches outside the pioneer's log cabin, Batey told Cook about how he and his fellow immigrant, Joseph Hart, almost succumbed to the elements the first winter they spent here. In that winter six years earlier they originally built a lean-to from brambles and twigs but the prevalent howling wind from the northeast blew their shelter down within days and Batey's carpenter skills saved the day, along with Indians' advice on how to build a sturdy temporary shelter. They were graced by the open friendship and aid of the Indians, who showed little fear or hesitation in accepting the newcomers and then shared with them the secrets of the fish and the berries and where they could find wild game to hunt up in the hills. Batey was already known in these parts for his carpentry skills as well as his ability to adapt quickly to any new environment.
      As he listened to Batey he learned that one thing had not changed in the 26 years since Cook had spent some time in the Northwest: Caucasian settler women were few and far between. Although his three fellow English immigrants from 1878 were still single, Batey found a wife of the same complexion almost by accident while trading for supplies in San Francisco. She brought a ready-made family of two young boys along with a medical degree from Iowa. Her first husband was shanghaied in the Barbary Coast section of the San Francisco wharfs and she accepted Batey's invitation to move her family up to live with him in the wilderness of Washington Territory. Doctors, especially the legitimate ones with documented bona fides, were even scarcer than Caucasian women in these climes and she made quite an impression on the settlers and merchant population in the valley. In the four years since she moved to Skagit with Batey, she cared for Indians and whites equally, bonding the family even more with the Indians. This day, she rode an Indian canoe "upriver" to another small village, Birdsview, where a logger had sliced open his leg with an axe.
      Capt. John Warner, a transplant from the Great Lakes region of the Mid-West, connected Batey and Cook. Like Henry Roeder up in Whatcom, Warner also hailed from Ohio and also traveled west from the Great Lakes to become a '49er in the California gold fields in the early 1850s. That was the same timeframe as when Cook owned a general store at the diggings of Rabbit Creek and Warren Hill in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Warner joined Cook in BC after the 1858 gold discovery and he married an Indian girl from the Thompson River region, where Cook founded his first town, Cook's Ferry. Cook returned to his home town in Mansfield, Ohio, and married in 1863, and then returned there a year later to farm near Mansfield, after amassing his first small fortune. Warner remained in the Northwest, moving south across the border to Whatcom County and then to the Samish River region, 20 miles northwest from Batey's locale.
      Batey soon discerned that his visitor might just be the kind of man that people sought in these parts, the kind with bona fides. Cook was a merchant, had even been a banker, a town father and knew investors with capital who could help the Skagit settlers attract industry to supplement the logging and farming that formed the basis of the northwestern Washington Territory economy. As the two men became friends over the next few days Batey took him on the rounds to visit the small nucleus of farmers and loggers who were carving out homes in the omnipresent forest.
      First, Batey took him to a spot on the western shore of the horseshoe bend of the river where the village of Sterling stood, actually a very small company town that was a cluster of buildings and homes for Ball's Logging Camp. Ball was at his office/trading post that day and he took Cook for a walk to show him where Lieutenant Henry H. Pierce camped with a small detachment of the U.S. Army that had explored the rivers on both sides of Cascade Pass in August 1882 and then rested up in Sterling before canoeing on down with Indian guides to Mount Vernon. Sterling would grow considerably in importance, if not in population, over the next decade as the railroads drew near, and Cook would actually take over the store himself six years in the future.

3. The neighbors
      Batey's closest neighbor was another immigrant, in this case from Hopsten in what is now northwestern Germany. Heinrich Holtkamp had another skill that settlers highly valued: he was a blacksmith who had staked a preemption homestead just two miles north of Batey and his talent was in great demand for the equipment, saws and plows of the farms and logging camps. Holtkamp homesteaded at the northern end of a double horseshoe bend of the Skagit.
      Just west of Batey's farm was Jesse Beriah Ball, who was the first logger to settle here permanently, in the late 1870s. Ball built a small village around his camp at a section of the river that settlers soon called Ball's Riffle and then Sterling by the time that Cook arrived. He had met Ball briefly on the way upriver but now he listened carefully as the old logger told him about timberland that could be leased around Mortimer's preferred town site from another logger and speculator, Winfield Scott Jameson.
      Near a meander on the river a couple of miles to the east Batey introduced Mortimer to Charles J. Wicker, who arrived on the scene from, Chillicothe, Iowa just a few months earlier in 1884 and was already preparing to welcome his mother and brother as well as several other families who were planning to follow him from Chillicothe and Des Moines in that state.
      Wicker lived at the western end of the section of the river that Indians called the Skiyou (and variant spellings), named for their own unique cemetery. Instead of interring their dead underground, they suspended them on cedar poles in the crook-limbs of cedar trees. Two other settler families lived within shouting distance of Wicker, including the earliest settlers of the region, Emmett and Eliza Van Fleet, who moved here in May 1880 from their ancestral home of Fleetville, Pennsylvania. Eliza was the only settler wife hereabouts when David brought Dr. Georgianna home with him a few months later that year. Emmett's family descended from farm folks and the inventor of a unique plow. He pointed out the ubiquitous ferns to Mortimer and suggested that this area should be called Fernland.
      Batey's fellow English immigrants from 1878 were all clustered near the landing site by the river but none were home this day. Joseph Hart built the cabin that Cook and the Indians passed on the north shore a half mile to the west. He had other interests down in King County near the growing town of Seattle. William Woods, the oldest of the settlers, raised cattle stock and was off trading. William Dunlop was off searching for pigs, which would provide his main income for the whole time he lived here.
      The last Skiyou folk they visited were the Van Fleet's neighbors to the east, the family of Daniel Benson, the namesake of the creek that separated their claims. He was the captain of the sternwheeler steamboat, the Glide, which Cook used to ferry material upriver from Mount Vernon. "Steamboat Dan" Benson knew the river as well as anyone in the Northwest and he and his father and family carved out a small farm from the brush and tall stands of cedar, just as the Van Fleets did. We surmise that it was Benson who probably cemented Cook's decision to settle at this point on the river by showing him the ins and outs of the mode of transportation on which the Northwest settler most depended in the 1880s. Although much of Northwest history revolves around railroads, the iron rails had not yet cut through this forest and would not start making their mark until 1889.
      The steamboat was the latest technological advance here and the sternwheeler was at its lead. The large paddle at the stern only descended into the river a foot or two, which meant that the boat could ascend to even the shallower regions of the river, along with some of the tributary streams, in the summer months. Settlers remarked that sternwheelers could "float over the dew" on the way to pick up logs, hay for cattle raisers and produce from the farmers.
      Another advantage was that the sternwheeler needed no elaborate wharf pier; a skilled captain could literally nose the boat up onto a sand bar or slope where farmers and loggers packed and left loads for downriver and up-Sound points. The steamer captains and pilots brought tools from the metropolitan manufacturers and supplies that supplemented the stock of the few stores at the few towns along the Skagit. As farmers cleared the trees to get at the rich topsoil, they chopped the trees and left the wood in large piles called cords every mile or so along the river because the hungry steamboat boilers needed fuel wood by the dozens of cords each trip.
      During those first few days Cook realized that the place where he landed with the Indians was not only a natural place where a crude ferry could cross the river, but it was also a natural location for a small steamboat wharf. It was the last place with enough depth even during the dry months. The store he planned could serve the villagers with basic staples. Settlers were coming this year by the dozens to many of the clearings in the forest along the shores of Puget Sound and the rivers that drained the North Cascades mountain range. Mortimer knew ferries and fords, from his time in BC, 20 years ago, and in Topeka, Kansas, 14 years earlier.
      For at least the next five years after Mortimer's arrival, the only way that the new settlers could transport their belongings and goods to their new homes was by canoe or sternwheeler. Deadfalls of trees obstructed the overland trails and the stands of trees that were so dense in those early days that the canopy only admitted sunlight for a few hours per day — if the sun was shining. More than a decade would pass after Cook's arrival until upriver farmers cut the first primitive trail along the northern shore of the Skagit from his town site to the Cascades foothills and even then only the sturdiest of wagons could traverse it.
      Two German brothers named Kiens arrived at the Skagit at almost the same time as Cook did. Surprisingly, however, their descendants learned that the brothers and their family barely ever crossed Cook's path for the 15 years that they lived within two miles of each other. They took homesteads due north of Cook's location, and east of Holtkamp (later Americanized to Holtcamp), but when they went trading they followed another Indian trail that led southwest in an arc to the Sterling district. In all the brothers' records the family never found any mention of the brothers trading at Cook's store.
      After a few days of touring with Batey, Cook made his decision. He would establish his business here, a general store, but even more important for his and the area's future, he would build a mill to produce cedar shingles for the homes that newcomers planned for their cabins and homes up and down the West Coast. As it turned out, one of John Warner's industrious sons soon stepped up to help Cook find stands of trees that he could buy, or timberlands that he could purchase or lease, and the same young man rustled up the crews to perform the initial logging. The only major problem Mortimer had to overcome was how to ship his mill products most economically. The volume he would eventually need to produce could not be transported by the relatively small sternwheelers.
      Although the nearest railroad was still nearly 75 miles away, he took that possibility into account when choosing the spot on the river for his store. He knew from experience in Topeka that any spot that was a natural ford, such as the location he first noticed upon arrival here, was also the prime spot for a railroad trestle. He knew from his experience of building a bridge at Topeka that if he built a destination or market center, the rails would surely come. But for now, he would depend on the steamboat passengers and trade. He didn't even think about the possibility of coal that first week, but that would actually be the ticket to attract the first railroad.
      This one would tax his skills and his patience even more than the fortunes, large and small, that had come and gone in his life in the four decades since he hitched his field mules to a fencepost near Mansfield, Ohio, in 1846 and pinned a handwritten message to the fence in Ohio, telling his parents that he was heading off to enlist for the Mexican War.

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Story posted on Sept. 24, 2013
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